A modern rematch of the 1998 World Cup final went a little differently, as Brazil defeated host France, 3-1, in the same Stade de France on Thursday. This time, 1998 captains Didier Deschamps and Dunga faced off from the dugouts, with Dunga’s men getting the victory their predecessors could not.
Both teams put out as strong a lineup as they could, buoyed by their recent form and the atmosphere surrounding the event. Neither team had lost since going out of the World Cup, with Brazil remaining perfect.
Deschamps and Dunga put out slightly different variations of a 4-3-3 system, with Brazil playing two holding men and Morgan Schneiderlin anchoring France alone ahead of its back line. Lacking a true center forward, Brazil played closer to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-4, while France looked closer to a 4-1-4-1.
The wing players were key for both, cutting inside frequently and looking for central superiority in attack. Willian and Neymar supported Firmino in the false 9 role for the Seleção, while Antoine Griezmann and Mathieu Valbuena led the charge for Les Bleus.
France’s dynamic and explosive wide men set the team’s tone, with midfield partners Blaise Matuidi and Mamadou Sissokho acting as facilitators with their off-ball movement and distribution. Ahead of them, Karim Benzema missed a couple opportunities to give France a lead, first with a seventh-minute header inside the six-yard box and a volley from another cross on the hour mark.
Botafogo goalkeeper Jefferson, one of two domestic-based players in Brazil’s starting 11, played superbly. He saved Benzema’s early effort, a one-on-one with Sissokho and a long-distance shot from Griezmann.
Brazil controlled possession, with France conceding the ball in the opposing half in particular. Les Bleus maintained a fluid line of confrontation, depending on Brazil’s numbers around the ball and whether it had sustained possession.
As a result, much of Brazil’s early ball circulation looked casual as it probed for openings in France’s defensive block. Lacking a true No. 9 helped in that sense, as Firmino played off the defenders and received below the back line, allowing the other attackers to make disruptive runs.
France’s most dangerous opportunities came on set pieces. Raphaël Varane opened the scoring on a 21st-minute corner, losing Miranda in the penalty area before heading home. Brazil remained patient, funneling much of its attack through Neymar, who wore the captain’s armband as the team’s most indispensable piece since its disastrous World Cup exit.
Upon his hiring, Dunga returned to the fluid-passing philosophy of the Brazilian teams that dominated past generations of international play. Despite playing with no true center forward against France, he normally does line up with a No. 9.
Gone is Fred, who disappointed at the World Cup, replaced most frequently since last summer by Shakhtar Donetsk goalscorer Luiz Adriano or Shandong Luneng forward Diego Tardelli.
On Thursday, Oscar partnered Firmino in a false-9 set-up, balancing his movements much as he does for Chelsea’s attack and working closely with Willian and Neymar to combine and create opportunities for penetration.
Their relationship proved fruitful for the equalizer just before halftime, as Oscar nutmegged a defender with a pass to a withdrawn Firmino before he returned the favor on the through ball. Oscar tapped it in, and Brazil drew level despite France’s opening goal against the run of play.
France put itself in posture to absorb again once the second half kicked off, and Brazil played leisurely through the first two-thirds of the field before unleashing a venomous attack. Within 12 minutes of the restart, the Seleção took a lead it would not relinquish.
The winning goal personified how wingers Willian and Neymar picked up the slack for lacking a Ronaldo-esque presence. Willian received the initial pass in midfield in a narrow position, and Neymar joined him and Firmino in the penalty area before smacking in the finish.
Brazil exerted more control as the match progressed, finishing with better numbers and showing a newfound versatility that Luiz Filipe Scolari could not implement in his second stint as manager of his native country.
The third goal came on a set piece, Luiz Gustavo heading in after his teammates ran interference in the area and allowed him to get up unmarked. He lashed his header downward and inside the post, out of the reach of Steve Mandanda, deputizing for an injured Hugo Lloris in goal.
The final strike completed Brazil’s trifecta of a goal off sustained possession, one on a counterattack and one off a dead ball.
The loss was France’s first since its World Cup quarterfinal exit against eventual champion Germany. The resilient Brazilians moved to 7-0 since losing big at the next stage and falling in the third-place match as well.
France has no competitive matches in sight for the next 15 months, until it hosts Euro 2016, allowing Deschamps plenty of time to tune up his team. Brazil, meanwhile, looks strong with three friendlies remaining ahead of Copa América.
Brazil’s spirit has improved immensely since the World Cup, helped by a series of positive results. This kind of build-up, now 7-0 with a plus-15 goal difference, could easily see the Seleção win its ninth continental title in Chile this summer.